On Tuesday of this week, we got news that Oriol Servia would be returning to the Indianapolis 500 with the team that gave him three previous runs in the Indianapolis 500 – Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. As a fan, I could not be happier with that news.
Many fans have expressed their disappointment that the second car at Bobby Rahal’s team did not go to a younger driver with a promising future. While that sounds noble, if I were in Bobby Rahal’s shoes – I would have done the exact same thing.
I’ve said many times that if I were to suddenly win the lottery and had a couple of hundred million dollars at my disposal, and wanted to build an IndyCar team from scratch – one of the first phone calls I would make would be to Oriol Servia. I’m one that values experience over potential, more times than not. Oriol Servia has the experience that I would be seeking if I were a team owner.
I have always thought that Servia was one of the most underrated drivers in the IndyCar paddock, if not the most underrated.
A couple of years ago, I remember Graham Rahal was quoted as saying that Oriol Servia was the best teammate he ever had, I suppose referring to their short time together at Newman/Haas in 2009 and again for a partial season at Rahal Letterman Lanigan in 2014. Servia also drove as a teammate to Rahal in the 2015 Indianapolis 500 and in a one-off effort for Bobby Rahal in 2009.
It appears they will be entering a third partial season together, as the Spaniard has been signed for the 2017 Indianapolis 500 and “possibly more”. While I’m glad to see Servia confirmed for another “500” so early in the offseason – it is the “possibly more” in the press release that intrigued me. Now that Graham Rahal has come into his own as one of the elite drivers in the field, I think his talent can still be enhanced by Servia’s presence on the team.
Here is where I’ll throw in one of my dreaded football comparisons. Earlier this NFL season, the Tennessee Titans signed future Hall of Famer Andre Johnson to complement their young corps of wide-receivers. Johnson was clearly on the downside of his great career that sadly included no Super Bowl and very few playoff appearances in his days with the Houston Texans and last year with the Indianapolis Colts. Johnson was signed to a one-year deal, mostly for his leadership. While he caught the winning touchdown pass against Detroit in Week Two, he was a shadow of his former self and announced his retirement about halfway through the season.
But where he made his greatest mark with the Titans was in the locker room. He showed the young wide-receivers and other players how to approach their work. From Johnson, they learned work-ethic and the right mental approach. The buzzword for those traits in the corporate world is called “soft skills”.
To me, that is what Oriol Servia brings to a team – the intangibles that a young driver can learn from a veteran presence. You may be thinking that Graham Rahal has a more proven veteran on his team – his father, Bobby, who won the 1986 Indianapolis 500 and three CART championships. How many of us continued to tune out our parent’s advice when we were in our twenties, but would listen to someone else conveying the same message? I know I was guilty of that when I was in my twenties, and I suspect Graham Rahal might be also.
When given the chance, Oriol Servia has proven time and again that he is an excellent driver. He also has a knack of bringing the equipment home in one piece. The last time Servia had a fulltime ride in the Verizon IndyCar Series was 2011. He managed to finish fourth in the championship while driving for an underfunded Newman/Haas Racing that was merely a shadow of its former self.
His previous fulltime ride prior to that was with KVRacing Technologies in 2008, when they were one of the transition teams coming over from Champ Car during unification. Servia finished ninth in the points. That doesn’t sound very impressive until you realize that Servia finished higher in the points than any other driver on the transition teams. He and his team spent the entire year learning a completely different chassis powered by a naturally aspirated Honda engine, while racing on mostly new tracks. Servia adjusted better than any other driver for the transition teams.
Is Oriol Servia that fastest or flashiest driver in the paddock? No, but he may be one of the smartest. Not only does he exude an even-keeled temperament, he is also one of the few IndyCar drivers with a college degree – a degree in mechanical engineering from Polytechnic University of Catalonia. He generally displays his intelligence on the track. He knows a car’s limits and rarely puts himself into an impossible situation.
Off the track, Oriol Servia is one of the nicest drivers you’ll meet. Unlike some foreign-born drivers, Servia speaks very good English and most people love to listen to him roll his “R’s”. His personality comes off as very genuine and it seems he would do very well with sponsors.
I was afraid that at the age of forty-two, the window may have shut on the Spanish-born Serbia getting another shot. That would have been a shame. He is one of those drivers that rarely brings money to the table, but when given a chance – usually makes the most out of an opportunity. That kind of guy is easy to root for.
But fortunately, Bobby Rahal recognizes what a hidden gem he has in Oriol Servia. That’s why he’ll be driving Rahal in his third Indianapolis 500 in the last four years. I am hopeful that between now and when the green flag flies in St. Petersburg next March, that Rahal will have put together the funding necessary for a fulltime ride for Servia.
So for those of you bemoaning the possibility of Sage Karam, Gabby Chaves or Matt Brabham sitting on the sidelines, while someone almost twice their age has been confirmed for the “500” – their time will hopefully come. They’ve still got time on their side.
Personally, I am rooting for another graybeard in the age group of Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves. Oriol Servia never got the opportunities that those two did, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t just as talented. I’ll take experience over potential any day.